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  • Investigators look at check cashing


    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 18, 1997

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Pinellas sheriff's investigators are reviewing records turned over Thursday by America's Cash Express to determine whether a church secretary has been cashing checks sent to the National Baptist Convention USA.

    A letter on file at the check-cashing store in Webb Plaza in St. Petersburg bears the signature of Henry J. Lyons and authorizes his secretary to cash checks payable to the national convention and its fund-raising campaigns.

    A woman who said she was Sheila J. Perry, Lyons' secretary at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, has gone regularly to the store to convert the donations to cash, an employee has said. The checks would be in amounts as high as $500.

    Officials at America's Cash Express said they were cooperating with local and federal investigators. Eric Norrington, the company's vice president of marketing in Texas, said an internal investigation also was under way.

    Opinions differed on whether the store should have cashed the checks, because they were sent to a corporation and whether the letter was adequate authorization.

    The law simply requires the bank or check-cashing stores to conduct a reasonable inquiry, said Craig Fraser, the state's deputy comptroller in charge of banking and finance.

    In addition to the letter, the store would have been more prudent to ask for a copy of the National Baptist Convention's bylaws or a resolution from the board of directors showing who can sign or cash checks, Fraser said.

    "In the stream of business under the uniform commercial code, it is well known that reasonable inquiry would be getting a copy of the bylaws or the resolution. It should be signed and sealed by the corporate secretary evidencing who has the authority," Fraser said.

    An official from the Florida Check Cashers Association, a trade organization for establishments such as America's Cash Express, said most of its business is with people cashing checks made out to themselves, not made payable to corporations.

    "But there's nothing illegal about it as long as it's done the proper way," Ralph Oko, senior vice president of the Fort Lauderdale association that represents 265 businesses, including America's Cash Express.

    The checks being cashed at the Webb Plaza store often were made payable to the convention or its fund-raising programs, including Walk of Faith and Standard Bearers.

    Whenever church members around the nation would donate to these programs, the money often was sent in preprinted envelopes to Lyons' office in St. Petersburg instead of the convention's headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.

    In his response to questions about why the money was not deposited into the convention's bank accounts, Lyons' attorney said repeatedly the letter was not signed by the minister.

    "I would suggest that the Times try and obtain the original of that letter," Grady Irvin said.

    He would not specifically describe the signature as a forgery, but said the letter was a fraud. "Just get the original. You'll get your answers."

    Perry, 47, did not respond to a half-dozen messages seeking her comment Wednesday and Thursday.

    If she is keeping the money from the cashed checks, she is not living a lavish lifestyle. Her house on 38th Street S is simple, as is her former house on Langdon Avenue S. Computerized records do not show her to own a car, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement says she has no criminal record in this state.

    "If God loves you," she says on her answering machine, "who can stand against you?"
    -- Times staff writer Monica Davey contributed to this report as did researchers John Martin and Kitty Bennett.

    ©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.